One-third of the way through the NBA’s regular season, the Clippers are one of only three teams, along with Milwaukee and the Lakers, to rank among the league’s top seven in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
With a 14-1 record at Staples Center, they protect home court as well as anyone in the NBA.
They might be dead last in understanding how their full roster will play. Injuries have kept the entire 15-man roster from being healthy at the same time and forced coaches and players to project the team’s potential based on feel rather than hard data.
“I do think I know who we can be,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I just have had no proof of it yet.”
The first evidence could be appearing soon.
After guards Patrick Beverley (concussion) and Lou Williams (sore right calf) each returned Tuesday during a 120-99 victory over Phoenix after sitting out two games, the Clippers are only JaMychal Green’s recovery from a bruised tailbone away from a healthy roster. The team on Wednesday listed the forward as questionable to play Thursday against Houston.
“You feel like after this stretch of games, I think we have two more on the road” — against San Antonio on Saturday and Oklahoma City on Sunday — “it feels like after that stretch we can like build our team, which is crazy to say that this late in the year,” Rivers said. “You feel like these first games you’re just trying to get through them, win as many games as we can and try to build some kind of identity, but not really.
“I feel like now we have a chance to get going and it’s a great feeling.”
For reserve guard Rodney McGruder, that feeling hinges on the gap he sees between the team the Clippers are — highly ranked in several statistical categories, despite being short-handed — and the potential he imagines.
“I think it’s a huge gap, I really do,” McGruder said. “When everyone’s in rhythm and jelling and flowing, I think we can be very scary what we can do.”
Consistency has suffered most because of the absences. Players have said that not everyone yet knows the entire playbook, and it’s not uncommon to see Rivers taking a player aside out of a timeout to demonstrate where he should have stood.
“When we get healthy and when we get all the players out there playing it’s going to be easier and easier and hopefully we can translate that to every game,” center Ivica Zubac said. “I think defensively we can be the best team in the league when we’re healthy and locked in.”
The team inched closer to seeing the roster it envisioned in the summer on Tuesday against Phoenix, the sixth time in their last seven victories the Clippers have won by double digits. Guard Landry Shamet played with stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for the first time. A starter before injuring his left ankle on Nov. 11 — which also came before George’s debut — Shamet came off the bench against the Suns, with Rivers opting to use forward Maurice Harkless as the fifth starter.
“All those rotations were more in my head because I haven’t been able to use them,” Rivers said. “When you think of lineups like [Montrezl Harrell] at the five, Kawhi at the four, PG [George] at the three, Lou [Williams] at the 2, [Shamet] at the 1, or Pat [Beverley], that’s a lot of shooting on the floor. Can that defend well enough? Those are questions we don’t know.”
They should have a better idea soon.
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 570.
Update: Houston (18-9) is two games behind the second-place Clippers (21-8) in the Western Conference standings. League-leading scorer James Harden has scored 50 or more points four times in his last nine games. Harden attempts a league-high 13.1 free throws per game, yet in his last seven games has attempted double-digit free throws just once. Perhaps most impressively, he took only five free throws while scoring 55 points on Dec. 11 and six two days later en route to scoring 54 points.